Jumping Off a Cliff: An Interview with Kevin Barry


At Work

Photo Credit:  Murdo Macleod

Photo credit: Murdo Macleod.

It is common, when assessing the achievements of a fiction writer, to consider how “well-rounded” his or her characters are. But one of the many pleasures of Kevin Barry’s work, and in particular of his most recent collection, Dark Lies The Island, is that it reminds us how—in fiction as in life—the most interesting people are often lopsided.

In a Barry story, people fuck up and then, after taking a breather, they fuck up some more. A guy walks out of a juvenile detention center and—fresh start!—concludes it’s a grand idea to start selling crystal meth. A boy on a rooftop thinks about kissing a girl, and keeps on thinking about it, and thinking about it, until hesitancy has nuked opportunity. In one of the collection’s most gnawingly memorable stories, “Ernestine and Kit,” the reader is presented with two chatty, unremarkable middle-aged women on a road-trip. The stage seems set for a warm story of female bonding. Only gradually, with slow dread, do we begin to read the cruel slant of their thoughts: they are predators planning to snatch a child.

Although he’s not averse to the occasional earnest moment of romance, Barry’s usual mode is laughter in the dark. Writers producing work in this vein are not, these days, a publisher’s dream. There is therefore something comforting in the way he’s finding an admiring, expanding audience both in his native Ireland and here in the U.S. After years of producing work he was unhappy with (“I wrote these great sententious sentences, clause after clause after clause under a black belly of fucking cloud”) his first major breakthrough came in 2007, when he won the Rooney Prize for Literature for There Are Little Kingdoms. That story collection had been released by a tiny Dublin literary press called The Stinging Fly. His first novel, City of Bohane, appeared in the UK in 2011 and went on to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. When Graywolf Press gave the book an American release it graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review and was hailed by the reviewer as a novel “full of marvels … marvels of language, invention, surprise.”

Ale is one of Barry’s enthusiasms. The interview which follows took place over pints at Flatbush Farm, a bar in Brooklyn. He’s a keen, wide-eyed talker who’s always pushing at the limits of what a curse word can do. He injects bright life into a conversation and occasionally ad-libs the kinds of observations you underline in his books. In Dark Lies The Island, breakfast involves “scraping an anti-death spread the colour of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto a piece of nine-grain artisanal toast.” The summer staff at an old hotel include “a pack of energetic young Belarusians, fucking each other at all angles of the clock.” The sky at night “shucked the last of its evening grey” and “the buck in the kiosk at the clampers had a face on him like a dose of cancer.” Barry’s language drags you into a strange, darkly lyrical world, enacting his own definition of literature as a mode of transport. “It lifts you up out of whatever situation you’re in and it puts you down somewhere else,” he says below. “It fucking escapes you. That’s what literature is.”

I’ve heard you speak about human feelings having an ability to settle into landscapes. Is that an important idea in the context of your fiction?

I think it is, yeah. My suspicion is that feeling escapes from people and seeps into the stones of a place.

I myself live in County Sligo in what seem like the perfect conditions for a writer—a room looking out on a swampy lake, all very atmospheric, ethereal mists, yadda yadda, and there’s nothing to fucking do but write. But after about two weeks of this, I need to get out or I’ll go nuts. So I go and cycle around the west of Ireland. I mean I don’t do crazy, German-type distances, but I’ll go maybe forty or fifty kilometers a day. And as you go through all the different towns, you pick up such different senses and reverbs from each place. It isn’t to do with how a place looks—there are run-down, shitty towns that give you a happy, spring-in-the-step feeling—but each place gives off its own very distinct feeling and sometimes it’s light and sometimes it’s really fucking dark.

I’d cycled quite a few times up and around the Ox Mountains—which are named in the traditional spirit of Irish grandiloquence, they’re really just hills—and any time I passed through out there, I got this very chilly “Oh-Jesus-Christ”-type feeling. I knew the place would work as a setting for a story, and I decided to try a new thing—I’d write the story while actually on location out there. So I spent a few days about the Ox and I’d get off my bike and make notes as I went around. I’ve always said that I’m a writer who works primarily from the ear but more and more now I think that’s untrue. I’m really influenced or sparked, I think, by a given locale. It’s like I’ve become a kind of location scout for my own work. So anyway I was out in the Ox, and I stopped at a petrol station and a squad car pulled in. A huge fat old guard climbed out. And I thought, “Ok, that’s one of them. Now who’s he after?” And in this way I had the story.

That became “Ox Mountain Death Song,” published in the New Yorker last year?

That’s right. Though after I’d written that story, I completely forgot about it for a while. I didn’t think it was a goodie. At the time I was caught up in this other story I was writing, which I was convinced was much better, I thought it was genius.

It wasn’t, as it so often turns out. I showed it to a few people and they said “Um, yeah, pretty good.” Because no-one ever says something’s awful, y’know? But you can see it in their eyes. Whereas when I eventually remembered it and showed the “Ox Mountain” story around, everyone immediately said “oh yeah.”

I often find that stories come in twos, and the one you think is the work of genius very rarely stands up to the light of day.

Do you give up on a lot of stories?

I finish them all. This comes out of some kind of professional pride. I finish even if I know or strongly suspect a story is crap. You’ve got to get it done and see what you’ve got. Put it in a drawer for a few weeks—this cliché is true—and then take it out again, rub your hand over the material and look for the hot-spots.

I’d say that just one or two of every ten stories I write is good enough for me to send out. That’s the kind of proportion I’m dealing with, maybe one or two out of ten. Hopelessly uneconomical. So I could only do a story collection every five or so years, I think. That kind of timespan feels about right to me for between collections.

It’s a very strange and mysterious art, short story writing. I’ve been at it while now, since the late 90s, I suppose. But the more practiced you become in writing short stories—the closer you get in to your work—the more mysterious it becomes. Short stories are very weird that way.

Tell me a bit more about this process of looking for the hot-spots in a story you’ve written.

I think I may have stolen this phrasing from George Saunders. By a hot-spot I mean merely the good stuff, the true stuff. Actually, it’s what you tend to wriggle away from on the page. The stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable or shameful in some way. The stuff that embarrasses you, that isn’t trying to sound like, you know, a piece of cool prose. The stuff that comes from deep within you and mortifies you. These are the hot-spots. They make a story come alive.

And I think one of the reasons I like writing first thing, early in the morning, is because that’s when I’m a bit sleepy, a bit off-guard, and I just put the words down on the page without thinking too much about them. When you’re wide awake, you’re thinking about how you sound to others. There’s the impulse to please or to sound cool. We all have that. So I like to put a block of words down while I’m half-asleep. I’ll use the word blah a lot—“He walked with the blah across the blah and blahed his blah until”—and keep moving, not worrying about the sentences or even making sense. Then I’ll chip away at the block of words later, when I’m awake and critical.

What is your process for coming up with a particular story? Maybe we can use “Beer Trip To Llandudno” as an example, the story in Dark Lies The Island that won the Sunday Times Short Story Award in the UK.

My wife and I were living in Liverpool at the time and the heating in our flat was really terrible. So we had no option but to go to a pub across the road called The Lion Tavern of an evening—just to keep warm, you understand. It was a real ale pub and the local branch of CAMRA [the Campaign for Real Ale] was often in there. And one night I went up to the bar and there was a newsletter about recent outings by this group of ale enthusiasts and I just thought, “Fucking gift,” you know? A beer club’s outing gives the perfect shape for a story.

Also, while I was living in Liverpool, I was loving the accent, the speech—the way that English is used and beautifully abused there—and this idea of a beer trip with the gang gave me a way into the language. Then other elements will find a way into your story. I remember a really hot day in Liverpool just before I left, in the summer of ‘06—thirty-five or thirty-six degrees, pig-heat—and I gave that weather to the story. I wrote it very easily, within about a week. Some stories I might do forty drafts over many months and it’s only on the forty-first draft that it comes together, or maybe it never does. But “Beer Trip” worked out very quickly. I think it has good timing, that story, and as always with timing I’ve no real idea of how it works but it does. It’s very hard to say what a good short story is but you know one when you’ve read one and you know one when you’ve written one.

There’s a real sense of male friendship in “Beer Trip” and a number of your other stories. Male friendship isn’t often written about in fiction.

It’s amazing how seldom that shows up in fiction; it’s not something a lot of male writers, especially, seem to want to write about. The real ale guys in the story are a kind of family, holding each other up against the darkness that’s pressing in on all sides. After the story won the Sunday Times prize, I saw on Twitter that loads of actual real ale clubs were tweeting “Real Ale story wins big prize!” Which was great.

A lot of the stories in Dark Lies The Island seem to deal with the relationship between England and Ireland, too. Were you consciously exploring that relationship in all its forms, comic and sad, what Nabokov famously termed “laughter in the dark?”

I don’t plan the collections, as such, but I can certainly see in retrospect that the relationship between England and Ireland, the strange interdependency, the love-hate thing, is definitely there in the stories and re-occurring. I suppose it must come in part from the fact that I’ve spent so much of my own life back and forth between England and Ireland.

I don’t know if there are other overriding themes in the collection. It’s a little darker, maybe, than my earlier work. And I do love that Nabokov description. If I could pinch any one description, it might be that. But the title story that gives the collection it’s name [about a girl struggling with an addiction to cutting herself] is an unusual one for me in that it’s probably the only story I’ve ever written that doesn’t have even an ounce of humor in it. It was difficult to write and I did a lot of drafts before I could get an ending I was happy with it. That story gave me a bit of a queasy feeling.

Your first novel, City Of Bohane, is I think quite different in tone to Dark Lies The Island. But it shares a delight in language, a playfulness and a musicality.

With City Of Bohane I tried to let loose. And in lots of different ways. I only realized as I was writing the first couple of chapters that it was set in the future. That was a very liberating thing—I realized I could do whatever the fuck I wanted. 

It’s an invented place but its language is sprung directly from working class speech in the cities I grew up in, Limerick and Cork. Those kinds of voices have never really shown up before in Irish literature. In terms of the language, I was trying to get it down on the page in a rush—I wanted it to be torrential—so the first draft was done in about thirteen weeks, with very little sleeping and eating.

City Of Bohane was my first novel published but not the first I’d written. I’d worried about so many things when trying to write novels previously. With Bohane, I thought, “Care less.” That’s what I was telling myself throughout the writing: “Care less. Fuck it. Just get on with it.” I just had to lock myself away and focus entirely on getting the words down in a very short period, and see what happened.

It must have been an insane few weeks, getting a whole first draft of a novel down. Insane for you and insane for your wife.

Well! Writers are always edging towards the nightmarish to live with, don’t you think? We’re off in a corner doing our weird stuff. I can’t remember where it comes from but the best definition of writing a novel I’ve ever heard is jumping off a cliff and having to invent the rope on the way down.

But it’s godawful hard work getting a good book together and even if you do it, it doesn’t guarantee anything. And it’s getting really hard now, all the time, for new writers to break out. If you’ve got any vague hint of originality about you at all, then you’re going to struggle at first. I was lucky that a small Dublin press, Stinging Fly, wanted to publish my first book, and that from there the reviews were good and I was able to keep going. I think the only workable definition of success for a writer is if you can keep going.

I think you’ve ideally got to limit your focus to your desk, and the peripheries of your desk, and not think too much about anything else beyond that—the wider context, what people will think. If you do that and get a bit of luck, everything will work out. Of course it’s hard to shut out the ambition. Every writer and artist has ambition in them. You want to be widely read. Many say they don’t but they’re lying. If you genuinely don’t have any ambition as a writer, then write the pages and go throw them off the side of a fucking cliff.

How do you feel about what’s called, ominously, “the future of the book?”

I think literary fiction is in danger of turning into opera. A rarefied, protected, subsidized species that’s enjoyed by an elite. But we’ll always need stories in some form. Stories are the only things that give any meaning to our pointless, shapeless lives. So storytellers will have a future somewhere. Increasingly, I try and work in all kinds of different media, writing screenplays and doing short films and writing plays. I want to write for the stage more, actually. I love it. If I have a central regret it’s that I didn’t do more playwriting when I was younger.

What is it about playwriting that you like?

I’m a frustrated actor. I have enormous sympathy for actors, and I think my stuff works well for them. And I like the collaborative side. It’s great having colleagues. I think younger writers should think more about working in theatre. It’s easier to get a little play on in a room above the pub than it is to get a book out. You can do it when you’re still learning your craft, and you can learn an enormous amount by hearing your work with an audience, however big or small. I tell a lot of writers starting out in their careers to think more broadly than just books. Writing books isn’t everything. Experiment with different forms. 

Hearing your work out loud teaches you so much, actually. I learned a lot when I agreed to do the audio book for City Of Bohane. Reading it start to finish like that, over a period of many hours, I came to see the things that I liked about the novel and the things I could have done better. For example, I felt a rush every time a couple of the female characters came into the story, and I realized they simply weren’t in it enough. I should have written more for them. Now when I finish a novel, I’ll always clear a week or so to read it out aloud to myself. It’s a very worthwhile exercise. And by then you’re nearly there anyway, you’re editing and polishing. That’s the fun part. The first draft part is awful. You’re pulling the book out of yourself, slowly, painfully. It looks terrible on the page, a first draft. Awful, untreated fucking sewage.

Do you remember the kind of stuff you were trying to write when you started out? The failed novels and stories that made up your apprenticeship.

For a long time I was trying to be the next great Jewish American writer. You know, the next Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. This was in Cork city, Ireland. As a pale ginger twenty-something. It wasn’t working out all that well, but I do think you have to write out your influences.

I’ve never agreed with this idea that a writer “finds his voice” and then just sticks with it and drones on in that voice for forty years. That sounds like death to me. I tend to let the story dictate the style. Back then, I let my idea of what a great writer sounds like dictate my style. I wrote these great sententious sentences, clause after clause after clause, under a black belly of fucking cloud, and I’d end up thinking, “What is this? Who wrote this? Who is this guy?” It certainly wasn’t me.

I came to write my first published stories, the ones where I started to be myself, in quite a venal way. I’d come to the U.S. on a trip—I think maybe in ’98—and I remember standing in a Borders bookshop outside Seattle and seeing all this little literary magazines on a shelf—Ploughshares and so on—and thinking, “Wow, there are places you can send short stories.” It was a revelation. There was very little back in Ireland at that time.

So I started writing stories specifically for these little American magazines. I’d send them off from a Hotmail account to some guy who ran a little magazine in North Dakota or somewhere. And he’d write back and say, “You live all the way over there?” And he’d publish them. Places like The Adirondack Review, that’s one I remember. Of course, I was outraged that The Paris Review wasn’t immediately swept away and sending me flowers. But I was often sending things out way too early. Sending unfinished stuff—this is the rookie error. It’s very hard when you’re a twenty-seven or twenty-eight year-old writer to be patient. To say: “Leave it a couple more months and it’ll be better.” But sending out stuff that isn’t ready can ruin your burgeoning reputation.

I wonder what kinds of things you started to notice in your work as it became more successful, and started to feel more “finished,” as you put it. Did you start to give your sense of humor a bit more free rein?

Definitely humor was a part of it. Comedy is the human mode. Comedy is how we get through. The ancient Greeks gave the highest prizes to comedy. Tragedy was considered a more workaday form. But comic writing is still generally considered a bit off, you know, and particularly in America, I think. This if-it’s-funny-it-can’t-be serious thing. Well, tell it to Saul Bellow. There’s so much earnest, machine-produced, MFA-type writing around. You can’t generalize and dismiss it all, of course, but you read a lot of these kind of well-made, earnest novels and straight away you think, MFA.

Allowing myself to have fun when I was writing was important. Allowing a natural vitality or vibrancy onto the page, and not trying to sound too much like literature. You get to a stage where you read what you’ve written that day and you think, ‘Right, this is surprising me, I don’t know where this is coming from.’ You make yourself laugh and that’s good. All my favorite books have humor in them. I finally got round to reading the Hilary Mantel Booker winners—Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies—and I hadn’t been that excited about the prospect of reading big fat Henry VIII doorstoppers. But guess what, they’re hilarious. Such a treat. She’s got really tremendous gifts as a comic writer. 

Literature above all is a mode of transport. It lifts you up out of whatever situation you’re in and it puts you down somewhere else. It fucking escapes you. That’s what literature is.

The funny thing about it all is that literary talent isn’t rare. Lots of people can write good stories with good characters and great sentences. What’s rare is the stubborn, pragmatic thing that tells you “I’ve got to do this every single fucking day, even when I don’t want to do it, when I’d rather pluck my eyes out and feed them to the birds.” That discipline combined with talent is very rare. I’d be willing to bet that some of the most brilliant writers who ever lived have never been published, because they weren’t prepared to do the work. You have to make sacrifices and be utterly selfish. Everything else and everyone else is secondary to your writing.

Jonathan Lee is a British writer. His two novels, Who Is Mr Satoshi? and Joy, are published by Random House.